By Suzanne Fox Sevel | Photos by Keith Betterley
From Around the World to the Space Coast
The “holidays” mean different things to different people. Melbourne is a city that embraces diversity, and while it is true that malls are adorned with giant Christmas trees, Santas, lights and familiar music, there are many unique traditions, customs and ways people celebrate. This is the time of year for celebrations, for charity, for love, for giving, for receiving and embracing all we have in common and all we have that is different.
Having Christmas in Your Heart
Chris Burton, president of Christopher Burton Luxury Homes, his wife, Ginger, and their two children, Chase and Anna Kate, all love the Christmas season. From shopping and decorating, to baking cookies, sending cards, visiting Santa Claus and giving back to the community, the Burtons are involved in all aspects of the holidays.
TALE OF TWO TREES
The Burtons set up the main Christmas tree in the living room, an elegant 12-foot fir, decorated with a whimsical theme, beautiful ornaments, lights and a top hat as a tree-topper. The Burtons also have the “tacky tree” in the game room — a tree decorated with fun ornaments including Auburn football memorabilia, Sponge Bob and handmade crafts. Chase, 11, and Anna Kate, 8, get into the spirit of Christmas by helping decorate the house. They also make gifts they’ll give to their parents on Christmas.
“If it were up to me, I’d have the whole outside of the house lit up like Disney World,” Chris said. But Ginger’s tasteful influence trumps Chris’s Griswold fantasy. “During the holidays, we also have the Elf on the Shelf, a magical stuffed elf who comes out during the Christmas season, sits on a shelf to watch the kids, reports back to Santa on who was ‘nice’ and reappears the next morning in a different spot,” Ginger explains.
While the Burtons enjoy Christmas and a visit from Santa, they make sure to remember what Christmas is about. “Christmas is really about remembering the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ, not how many gifts we receive. We feel it’s so important to take time and really focus on how incredibly blessed we are and to help our kids understand where those blessings come from,” said Chris. Each year the Burtons adopt a family in need and donate money and toys in order to make that family’s Christmas special. On Christmas Eve, the Burtons read a Bible verse and attend Christmas Eve service at Calvary Chapel. “And of course our kids somehow always end up negotiating to open at least one present before bedtime…Mom is such a softy!”
COUNTING OUR BLESSINGS
“We like to spend Christmas Day with just our family. We’re not extravagant in gift giving and we don’t believe in excess for our children. We try to teach our children to be grateful and content with what they have,” said Chris. “It’s a very special time for our family” he said.
Deck the Halls
Peter and Kateri Genna love Christmas. Preparation for the holiday season starts as early as June every year. As the owners of Genna Jewelers in Palm Bay and recently opened a second location in Viera, the Gennas put a lot of thought and time into the unique pieces brought into the stores for the holidays. Madelaine, the Gennas’ eldest daughter, after working for designer Cheri Dori, is very excited to come on board with her parents. Alexandra, the youngest daughter, is currently a student enrolled at Florida State University but as always will join the rest of the family over the winter holidays. “Christmas is a very special time for Genna Jewelers,” said Peter. “We are blessed to have our clients’ patronage year after year.” Just like in the Genna household when decorating the tree, everyone takes part in making the store beautiful for the holidays. “We use many antique silver ornaments,” said Kateri.
THE PRESENCE OF FAMILY
Aside from attending mass at the Holy Name of Jesus, the Genna family also has many other holiday traditions. “On Christmas day, we all put on our matching pajamas, while partaking in a home cooked breakfast consisting of eggs, biscuits, and our family favorite,─a special treat we eat once a year, a ‘holiday’ meat which most of you know as bacon,” Peter said.
“As for our Christmas dinner,” said Kateri “being raised in Costa Rica I thought it would be a great idea to start the tradition of tamale making.” Turns out the first try ended up being the last for the family and now every year they make a trip to Peter’s mother’s for a little taste of Italy with her famous pasta al forno dinner. The Gennas are involved in a number of philanthropic causes throughout the year. “On this special day, our family takes time to reflect on all that we have to be thankful for,” Kateri said.
Happy New Year from Grandpa Frost
For Evelina and Konstantin Petrenko, who are Russian Orthodox, Christmas is not celebrated the same way or on the same day as it is here in the United States. “In Russia, the birth of Christ is a serious religious day; people go to church, read from the Bible or watch church services. There is no exchanging of gifts. Christmas itself falls on January 7,” Evelina explains.
“The biggest holiday for us is New Year’s Eve, December 31. It’s like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July combined,” said Konstantin. The Petrenkos are both from Moscow and moved to Melbourne about three years ago.
On New Year’s Eve, there is an abundance of traditional food, gift-giving and a visit from Grandpa Frost, a Santa-like character (dressed in blue, fit and with a stern beard) and his granddaughter Snegurochka, who give gifts to children. Grandpa Frost gets around on a carriage pulled by three horses.
“This is the night where families and friends get together, exchange presents, eat, laugh, sit around the table and make toasts with vodka. Everyone stays up late for the fireworks. We watch the giant clock countdown,” said Konstantin. “People with young children stay in; grandparents are usually cooking and the young adults go out to street parties to celebrate,” he explained.
“Since moving to America and having our son, Emil, now 6, we’ve adopted some American customs. We’ve got Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and Grandpa Frost a week later,” said Evelina. In Melbourne, the Petrenkos celebrate New Year’s Eve in traditional Russian style, with a big dinner party surrounded by close friends, many of whom are also Russian. “It’s a magic, festive time. We have good conversations, gifts and holiday foods like Herring Under Fur Coat, Salat Olivier and caviar.”
Evelina, director of social services for Island Health and Rehab, and Konstantin, manager of e-commerce for Brightworld Properties, both love the diverse cultures and lifestyles on the Space Coast. “Here there is a melting pot of cultures; no one is the same,” Evelina said.
Love, Laughter and Traditions Old and New
Marlene Winsten, instructional coach for the early childhood programs at Brevard Public Schools, and Keith Winsten, executive director of the Brevard Zoo, celebrate Chanukah each winter. “Jewish holidays are about getting together with family and friends,” Marlene said.
“Chanukah isn’t our biggest or most important Jewish holiday, but we do have our family traditions,” said Marlene. Chanukah is an eight-day celebration that begins on the 25 of Kislev (according to the Hebrew calendar.) It usually falls in late November or December. The Winsten children, Molly, 21, George, 18, and Lily, 11, each have their own menorahs, which they light at sundown. On the first night, one candle is lit, followed by day two with two, day three with three and so on. On the eighth day, all the candles are blazing.
“We have Chanukah customs like eating food fried in oil such as latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (donut-like pastry), gold foil chocolate coins (gelt).” The Winstens have an extensive collection of dreidels and everyone gets into the gambling fun. Dreidel is a Yiddish betting game using a spinning top with four sides. “After the prayers and candle blessings, the children open one gift each night,” said Marlene.
While traditions are comforting, last year’s blending of the secular (Thanksgiving) and the religious (Chanukah) holiday, inspired new customs for the Winstens. “We had a party with a yankee gift swap. We decorated the inside of the house with dreidel lights, candles and other Judaic décor. Guests brought a wrapped gift under $20. During the gift swap, we took turns choosing from the wrapped pile or stealing what someone already opened. It was fun, lots of laughing.” During the party, the Winstens served traditional Jewish food of latkes and brisket. “It was pretty festive. Everyone enjoyed it regardless of his or her faith. We’ve decided to do this every year,” Marlene said. “This year we’re going to add a donation jar at the party to help raise funds for a children’s holiday charity,” she said.
Diwali: Festival of lights
For Dr. Nikhita Dhruv and her son Kiran, who are Hindu, their big holiday is Diwali. Diwali, also called the Festival of Lights, is a five-day festival that occurs in October or November. Diwali has all the ingredients of a major holiday, complete with lights on homes, feasts, the giving of gifts and sweets, lighting fireworks, singing hymns and reciting special prayers. Diwali signifies lightness over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil and hope over despair.
LIGHT OVER DARKNESS
Before the first night of the festival, people clean, renovate and decorate their homes. “We string up lights all over the house, light candles and dress up in our best outfits,” said Dr. Dhruv. “We light the lamp and say a prayer with oil, flowers and sandalwood in the Puja (place in the home devoted to family prayer) to Dahn-Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Later, our family gets together for a celebration and a meal at a friend’s home. Each day has a significance,” she explains. The festival starts with Dhanteras (preparation, shopping), followed by Naraka Chaturdasi (decorating homes), Diwali (the social gathering of friends, family) on the third day, Diwali Padawa (honoring husband and wife) on the fourth day, and Bhau-beej (honoring brothers and sisters) on the fifth day.
In preparation for Diwali (the feast on the third day), many people buy new clothes, jewelry, gifts and sweets (mithai.) They paint elaborate designs, called rangoli, on their driveways with colored powder to welcome Lakshmi. There is a celebration dinner with traditional Indian delicacies like pohva (pounded rice) and vegetarian dishes. At night, beautiful fireworks are set off to express joy and to chase away evil spirits.
“There is a pretty large Indian community here in Melbourne and many of us celebrate Diwali,” said Dr. Dhruv, an endocrinologist for Medical Associates of Brevard. The Manav Mandir Temple, a Hindu place of worship, recently opened in Suntree.
Matunda ya Kwanzaa: A celebration of Family, Community and Culture
Patricia Davis, former radio and television personality and founder of Knucklebones Creative Kids Club, has been celebrating Kwanzaa since she first saw a Kwanzaa parade in Los Angeles in the 1980s. While Patricia and her daughter do celebrate Christmas, with Christmas trees, gifts and Santa Claus, Kwanzaa is a separate, seven-day celebration deeply rooted in African-American culture and starts on December 26.
Davis is on the Nguzo Saba committee, a group that helps promote Kwanzaa throughout the Space Coast. There are seven days of Kwanzaa and seven principles. Each day has a core value that’s honored for that day: Umoja, unity; Kujichagulia, self-determination, Ujima, collective work and responsibility, Ujamaa, cooperative economics, Nia, purpose, Kuumba, creativity and Imani, faith. Kwanzaa, which means first fruits in Swahili, is celebrated with symbolic candle lighting (seven candles: one black, three red and three green) and culminates in a vegetarian feast with music and gift giving.
“We light a candle for each of the seven days and talk about the importance of that principle. It is a holiday for the children, so they participate by making a craft or reciting poetry. We have music, drumming and dancing,” she said. In larger, urban cities, there is a parade. “When people have a Kwanzaa celebration in their homes, they light the Kinera and display symbolic items on the table: a mat, unity cup, gifts, fruits and ears of corn. At our Kwanzaa celebration, people wear regular or African attire such as a traditional dashiki, kaftans, or animal prints,” she adds.
“We gather to celebrate life, love, unity and hope. It’s a time to reflect on Kwanzaa and the greater sense of value in our community,” Patricia says.